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Pleasures of Penang

Dressed for Chinese New Year celebrations on Harmony Street in Georgetown.

Photo: Mikkel Vang

From the museum I went in pursuit of a certain Mr. Lee, apparently the last man in Malaysia to make sandalwood joss sticks by hand. A heritage brochure I’d picked up had made special note of the sole surviving practitioners of various traditional crafts in Georgetown, and Mr. Lee was listed. I had already stocked up on paper money and wanted to add some incense offerings to hedge my bets with the gods.

On the way to Mr. Lee’s shop—“hole-in-the-wall” is a more literally precise description—I passed a two-story shop-house from which emanated an unholy racket that called to mind the sound track of The Birds. I assumed that the building, like many in Georgetown, had been abandoned and left to the wild things, and only later learned that the calls were recorded lures. The swallows that roost there build nests that are harvested for soup. I also learned that the palm-blind weaver had gone out of business, as had the man who made hand-beaded shoes. The traditional wooden signboard engraver was seldom to be found at a shop presided over by an ancient whose wry neck caused her head to pitch forward like that of a broken Jumeau doll.

It took days to find Mr. Lee at his shop, but I got lucky one morning; just as I rounded the corner on Lorong Muda, I ran into him returning from breakfast. His lunch of fish stew, in a clear plastic bag, was slung from the handlebar of the bike he was walking. Rolling up the corrugated shutters to his stall—a space little larger than the flatbed of a pickup truck—he waved toward a stack of crates packed with incense sticks in diameters ranging from billy club to matchstick.

Now in his eighties, Mr. Lee had been making joss sticks and incense cones by hand for six decades, he explained in a Hokkien dialect that a friend of mine helpfully translated. First mixing water with powdery batches of Indian sandalwood to form a paste, he then rolls up incense sausages of varying dimensions and slips them onto candy-striped sticks to dry. I bought several batches painted with characters written in Chinese and English and said good-bye.

At the Goddess of Mercy Temple, I fell in among my fellow supplicants, stuffing wads of orange joss paper into a furnace, and also leaving some real currency in a tea bowl on the temple altar. As I gazed at a blissed-out Buddha mounted on his gilded throne, I uttered a silent prayer that, like all prayers, was a kind of deal. And then, while lighting an incense stick with luck written on it, I threw in a silent word to the assorted gods of thanks.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.


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